My family comes from two worlds: the Azores of the Atlantic, and the hills of Rutland County.
My Azorean blood yielded a deep passion for the fruits of the sea, and the fatty flesh of sustainably-raised salmon has always been my absolute favorite: versatile, impressive and naturally compatible with most palates.
Grilled salmon sounds super-vanilla, but sometimes the simplest things are the best. Cedar plank grilled salmon with a truffle aioli, lemon and capers is the perfect screen porch meal, or for when your in-laws are over so you can brag about how you live in the most perfect state.
Two of the absolute worst things in the world are overcooked salmon and well-done steak, and I’m not taking arguments over the last one. You can salvage overcooked salmon by making salmon spread or cream cheese for your shmear with dill, but well-done steak is a pox on your home.
The reason I mention it is because the aioli in this recipe is the parka that will protect the salmon from drying out and getting squeaky. It keeps the flesh smooth, fatty and beautifully soft, much like my cooking keeps my friends as dinner guests.
For the fish, I prefer using Faroe Island, Irish or Scottish salmon for the flavor and quality. I have nothing against Maine, but as far as farm-raised salmon I like European, and that’s just me. I scale it and leave the skin on, because that’s my favorite part and it helps protect the underside of the fish during cooking.
Cedar boards are easy to find at your local grocer, but the important thing to remember is that you need to soak them. Soaking them in water or wine prevents, well, fire, but also too much char that can color the taste of the fish. The cedar imparts a warm, sweet smokiness to the fish, elevating the flavor profile and adding decadence. Place your cedar boards in a square pan of cold water or cheap chardonnay and weigh them down with a full mason jar so they are fully submerged for about an hour or so before you start grilling. Set it and forget it.
So you can also use mayonnaise, but aioli is a very easy thing to make, especially if you have a decent blender. The secret is to use really high-quality everything, because the flavors are simple and delicate on their own. Together, they combine to become a multi-faceted flavor profile in a spread that goes with just about anything, including french fries.
Place four pasture-raised egg yolks in the blender with a teaspoon of good salt, a tablespoon of dijon mustard, a tablespoon of fresh meyer lemon juice or Nellie and Joe’s Key West Lemon Juice (the best), a tablespoon of freshly chopped garlic, three to five drops of white or black truffle oil (or more) and a few cracks of fresh black pepper. I love to use Saratoga Olive Oil Company’s Black Truffle Oil and their Portuguese Cobrancosa Extra Virgin Olive Oil — you can find them on Church Street in Burlington. You get to taste whatever you want before you buy it, and it is enormously fun to taste so many oils and rich, infused vinegars. They make great gifts, too!
Really, though, your aioli is up to you. If you like strong olive oil flavors, go robust. If you prefer lighter flavors, go light. The type of olive oil will not break the finish.
Blend the ingredients together, and in the small hole in the top begin drizzling your olive oil in a very, very fine stream for two seconds at a time while blending on low. Do this until the aioli begins to thicken. Add enough oil that the finished consistency is that of a stiffer mayonnaise, because we want to coat the fish with it and make it stick. Add more salt and lemon if you prefer for taste.
Take your soaked boards and place them side by side and layer with thinly-sliced lemon. Lay your 1 ½ to two pounds of salmon on top, skin-side down. If needed, trim the salmon to fit on the boards, and set the grill to about 350 degrees, about medium-high.
Pat the fish dry and coat with a nice, thick, winter-coat layer of aioli, sides and all as if you were frosting a cake. Sprinkle with capers so it looks similar to a pincushion, and place on the grill, but remain nearby: this fish won’t take very long: around 12 to 15 minutes, or until a fork can flake away the fish easily. Sometimes the aioli toasts on top, and that’s okay: actually, it adds some lovely, smokey flavor.
Salmon has a subtle earthiness, so the darkest wine you’ll want to go would be a chilly pinot noir, but I prefer a cold chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. This dish also goes wonderfully with chilled cider, such as Citizen Cider’s Wits Up, or Stowe Cider’s Safety Meeting. Perfect sides should be bright and fresh, like an arugula salad with blackberries, raspberries and dollops of Vermont Creamery’s herbed goat chevre with a citrus vinaigrette, or a vinegared slaw with red cabbage, scallions and carrots.
This is a meal you’ll want to have on a gentle Vermont evening with a graceful sunset and birds in the trees. I know that sounds cloyingly idyllic, but we live in Vermont for a reason, don’t we?